Version classiqueVersion mobile

A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Part two. Multivocal generations: Weaving kinship and politics

Chapter three

Family, residence and territory

Texte intégral

  • 1  Shoulder straps among the Tigania, forehead straps among the Igembe.

1A traveler still under the influence of the geographical codes of his/her homeland is constantly disorientated, in the Nyambene Hills, by the fact that although the region is densely occupied, it is difficult to understand where people actually live. When climbing towards the high hills, the vistas obtained at turns in the roads provide glimpses of numerous large, thatched huts from which the smoke of home-fires rises early in the morning, scattered over hillsides where the scars of erosion bear witness to over-cultivation. The crowds that can be seen on market days confirm the impression of high density. People jostle on the paths and lanes leading to the large quadrangles laid out during the colonial period, planted with what are now large trees and lined with stalls made of wood or cinder blocks. Young men tote chickens, driving sheep before them and dragging goats after them, while cattle are often led by older men. They are all going to the livestock market, located at a certain distance from the general market. The women arrive a little later, burdened under baskets with straps1 filled with produce from their gardens; they set up on the side of the cereals or the side of the fruit and vegetables, while the tobacco and salt sellers occupy the center and the tinsmiths are more remote, situated near the less-used exit, near the occasional sellers with their stalls of plastic containers and utensils. It takes time to get to the market. Many people come from far off, in matatu (bush taxis)—completely overloaded, of course. The market reaches full swing in the early afternoon, and then quickly empties. Nobody likes to be out and about after nightfall, so the transactions are hastily concluded: one has to find kerosene, some tea, sugar, sometimes bread, in the neighboring duka (stores). The jostling continues at dusk in the matatu and on the overcrowded paths. Darkness falls. Nobody lives in the market district, and the calm returns as if the land was uninhabited.

2It is impossible to go to someone’s house for the first time without being accompanied. The path that appears to lead there suddenly peters out under the forest cover where banana trees mingle with khat bushes, and sugar cane in the damper, low-lying areas. The view is blocked by walls of vegetation that prevent one from seeing the dwelling, although it must be near at hand, and one has the irritating feeling of being seen without seeing. In the lowlands, where the landscapes open out onto vast expanses planted with sorghum, millet and beans, one is invited to follow more clearly-defined paths that lead to circular kraals well-defended by dead hedges above which poke the thatched roofs of the huts, only to discover, sometimes, that there is nobody there. The dried mud in the cattle enclosure, the ground littered with windswept leaves and the grass growing on the kiara show that, for a time, the kraal is not being used. One must get used to the way that housing is dispersed and dwellings are scattered, almost camouflaged. One must learn to spot, under the layer of trees and crops, the hollows indicated by a narrow strip of trodden earth that initially went unnoticed. They lead to the large hut of a couple of grandparents who watch over a superb yam plantation in the forest. But one must not expect to find this couple in the same place sometime in the future: the grandfather may have moved in with his daughter, while the grandmother, who has gone to plant parcels of sorghum or beans, is living some ten miles below. One has to bear in mind that a given kraal is only used while the herds benefit from the regenerative salt springs and the surrounding grazing land. One has to recognize, behind the coffee trees, the low doorway which one has to duck to pass through, indicating the home of a father of family. Finally, when one arrives at the mûciî of the person who is said to know so many things, one must wait for the appearance of the old man, who is keeping cool under a pergola of branches hidden in the adjoining field of maize, chewing on khat with his companions.

1. The family kraal and means of subsistence

3Every mûciî (pl. mîciî) or family establishment is identified by the name of the man who founded it when he got married. If one wishes to know who a given mûciî belongs to, one asks the name of the mwene mûciî or of the mûkûrû ene mûciî. Mwene is a noun signifying “holder, owner”, and mwene mûciî can be translated as “head of the family establishment”; mûkûrû designates a married man, and in this case, the phrase using mwene in the verbal form ene is superfluous, since neither warriors nor women can aspire to the appellation mwene mûciî. Mûciî is a noun drawn from the verb gûciara, encountered on several different occasions, which means, depending on its form and the context it is used in: “to be born, to give birth to, to give rebirth to”; here there is the added idea of the place from which one draws one’s origin, one’s existence. Mûciî encompasses not only the family that the man has founded, but also the dwellings, the goods, the debts and credits of various kinds of which he is the owner and for which he is responsible. Mûciari (pl. aciari) designates patrilineal kin more broadly, but the extent of this kinship is reduced by an imprecision, or lack of differentiation, specific to the Tigania-Igembe.

4The rules governing the distribution of the buildings and use of the domestic space are easier to grasp in the kraals built in the open spaces of the lowlands. The tall, compact fence of dry thorn branches that indicates and protects every mûciî encloses a circular space in which the layout is easy to read, whereas in the highlands, the different units appear to be dispersed according to the vagaries of the terrain; nevertheless, they follow the same rules. The sturdy enclosure of dry branches (mairi), formed of one, sometimes two and in earlier times three concentric hedges, has two functions: to mark the boundary between the interior and the exterior, and to act as a defense against predators and enemies. But however dense they may be, these hedges could not halt the charge of a herd of elephants or an attack by a large number of determined assailants. The enclosure, which is not made of living hedge, is the sign of a settlement that may be followed by departure, and not an installation that would enhance long-term residence in a given place. The kraal is always established on a hillock, so that water drains off and the earth can dry out. When the ground has been trampled or an epidemic threatens the family or the livestock, a move is organized and the kraal is abandoned. However, building a new kraal and all the huts it contains is an arduous task, if only in terms of finding wood of sufficient quantity and quality. It is only undertaken for very good reasons.

  • 2  Modernization has, of course, brought certain changes to a pattern which can still, however, be ob (...)

5The entrance by which one penetrates into the kraal is called mwiriga, a frequently-used word which has several meanings. When necessary, this opening, lowered to the height of cattle horns, can be blocked from the inside by piling up large branches. Huts of various shapes and sizes, granaries and a pen for the livestock are dispersed around a yard that is swept every morning (fig. 13). The household waste is thrown into a wide, shallow hole (kiara) dug between two hedges, on the left-hand side of the kraal as one exits. Hidden exits (akello) set into the thorny hedges allow people to slip out whenever the need is felt. The rules governing the positioning of the different components of an establishment are defined when one is facing the main exit, about to leave the kraal2. On the right when leaving (or the left when entering) is the father’s gaaru, a large hut that belongs specifically to him, called by a name already encountered in other contexts to which it should obviously be related. The broad threshold sheltered by the overhang of the thatched roof, where one stands in hot weather, constitutes the kiome (pl. iome), a word that also designates any place in which adult men gather. On the left when facing the exit (or on the right when entering the kraal) is the wife’s hut, called gîkûmbi (pl. makûmbi), a word probably derived from the verb kûumba (muntû), “to conceive (a human)”, or nyumba, a generic term for any house. Any additional wives live in huts on the same side of the kraal, heading towards the far end of the establishment, so that the layout of the wives’ huts reflects their order of arrival with respect to the first wife, whose hut always stands opposite that of the husband. Young children always live in their mother’s hut. When the children grow older or become numerous enough, the kraal is extended, and separate huts are built for the brothers and for the sisters, with no distinction between half- and full-blood relations. Other huts appear at the time of initiation: the lûbua for girls, and the kiaanda kia ntaane, built outside the kraal, for boys. A grandparent who remains in the mûciî has his or her own hut, where the grandchildren often come and sleep. Passing visitors are accommodated in a hut in keeping with their condition. Sometimes we were housed in the sisters’ hut, and sometimes in that of the grandmother.

Fig. 13 — The different elements of the family kraal

Fig. 13 — The different elements of the family kraal

1. mwiriga entrance and exit door of the family kraal, and of the cattle enclosure
akello hidden doors
mairi thorny hedge
kiara waste heap
gaaru father’s hut
gîkumbi spouse (s) hut (s); or nyumba, house
lûbua girls’ hut
mûciî jwa ngombî cattle enclosure; “bovine” enclosure
chuku granary
kiaanda kia ntaane novice’s shelter

6Within the family kraal there is another enclosure for the livestock, smaller but with sturdy defenses and with a passage closed in the same way as the entrance to the main enclosure. The homology between the two enclosures, one of which appears to be a smaller version of the other, can also be observed in the words used to designate them: the livestock pen is called mûciî jwa ngombî, the literal meaning of which is “family establishment of the cattle”, and the gate is called mwiriga. The departure and return of the livestock imparts a daily rhythm to the life of the establishment. At dawn, the animals are released into the main enclosure; the calves, kept separately in a little pen or a hut, are brought to their mothers for the milking. The animals graze the grass before being led to the pastures and watering holes, by a son or very often by the father, who carries a long cattleman’s stick and his elder’s stool. Looking after the herd is an activity men of a certain age are particularly fond of: there is nothing better than a day spent with a companion guiding the herds to pastures or springs of which they know the virtues. When the herd returns at nightfall, the entrance to the kraal is closed with the branches kept for that purpose, and then the evening milking is performed.

7Each wife has her own grainstore (chuku), in the form of a small hut on short, thick pillars that create a space between the floor of the grainstore and the ground, where various utensils tend to accumulate. In principle, the grainstore was erected outside the kraal. This arrangement, surprising from the perspective of possible theft, has now been abandoned, but the elderly well remember a practice that certainly used to exist (Bernard 1972: 51). In the layout of the family establishment, this is a sign of the alternative between harvests on the one hand, and livestock and humans on the other: the kraal is a space reserved for the latter, and the fruits of harvest are stored outside in the chuku, or within the wife’s house in a large, round basket with a narrow neck called kirûrû. The frame of this basket, which is more than a meter in diameter and nearly as high, is of wickerwork, coated by the usual waterproofing cob made of ash mixed with water and cow dung. Given its imposing size, the kirûrû is made on the spot, inside the wife’s hut. In it, the wife stores the fruits of harvest in the form of seeds, beans, peas and cereals. The layout of the kitchen meets practical needs and reflects the state of relations between the wives, if there is more than one. Each dwelling has a fire in the middle, for light in the evening and warmth during the night. The wife has a hearth with three stones, where the food cooks in pots, made of earthenware in former times. The large grinding stone, in the form of a sloping, knee-high table on which the woman crushes cereals, which are dampened as they are reduced into powder, or more precisely paste, is always installed outside, under a canopy where a kitchen may be added. Daily food is based on gruel, more or less fermented, mixed with water or milk, which is carried in gourds when one is going to be out all day or longer. Otherwise, hotpots of beans, peas and corn, which take a long time to cook, are prepared and sometimes enhanced with mutton fat or a piece of smoke-dried meat. In the past, each person would come and help themselves according to their hunger, and then go off and eat alone. Nowadays, the rhythm of food intake has changed somewhat, but it is difficult to speak of meals, much less of commensality, since individuals continue to isolate themselves and to avoid eating face-to-face, especially in the case of a man and a woman. To honor a visitor, he or she is invited to eat alone in their corner. When formality gives way to a certain degree of familiarity, the distances diminish, but the eyes are turned away just as much. Like excretion, the everyday ingestion of food is marked with the seal of avoidance and furtiveness.

Elements of the old economy

8A family’s right to cultivate gardens and use pastureland results from the father’s belonging to a territorial section. For the moment, it is sufficient to say that it depends on the man’s initiation and his stay in a warrior’s house. After that, when he gets married, an individual can settle in the territorial section of his choice. Most often, he remains in the section where his father lives, but if the fancy takes him he can settle in another Tigania-Igembe section, provided the warriors of that section give their consent. In that case, various arrangements exist, but the solution most frequently mentioned is that of the warrior who settles in the territorial section of the girl he has married. Each territorial section is a mwiriga (pl. mîiriga) designated by a proper noun. This is the second occurrence of a term which, as we have seen, also means “gate of the family kraal” and “gate of the livestock enclosure”. It is divided into three or four territorial subsections, also called mwiriga and identified by a proper noun. But mwiriga also means “clan”, patrilineal and designated by a proper noun, and the reader will understand that simply belonging to a clan is not sufficient to give a family the right to gardens and pastures. Lastly, every family establishment is included in a basic territorial network made up of ntoora, a noun drawn from the verb gûtoora, “to live in, to reside”, that should be translated by “neighborhood”, rather than “village”, as it has usually been translated. The ntoora, also identified by a proper noun, is a subset of the territorial subdivision. In a scattered habitat, the ntoora corresponds to an area of co-residence where the everyday proximity of family kraals, of different clan origin, generates cooperation and mutual aid in the most diverse domains, including rites, in which neighbors often participate. Each ntoora possesses a communal grassy area, the kearao (pl. cearao) which serves as grazing land and as a place of assembly for the councils of men and of women, of which this is the first level of meeting. There may be a threshing area adjoining the kearao, where the flattened grass is covered with a layer, renewed every season, of the usual mixture of water, ash, clay and dung. However decisive they may be in terms of rights to settle and of daily organization, belonging to a territorial division and integration into a neighborhood do not wholly explain the morphology of the family unit. In order to take advantage of the diversity in ecosystems that rapidly succeed each other on the slopes of the Nyambene Hills, and to counter the irregularities in rainfall, each family has gardens and dwellings at different levels. This also allows the family to protect itself from other dangers: the destruction of crops by locusts or, in former times, attacks by aggressors from the lowlands who were reluctant to venture under cover of the forest.

9Tasks are allotted more or less strictly according to gender and age. The gardens are cleared or re-cleared and then turned over by the father, helped by boys or by his companions. It is strictly forbidden for warriors to undertake any kind of work in the gardens, with the exception of the yam plantation that every warrior’s house possesses. The men grow yams in the forest or along the palisades. They also cultivate sugar cane and tobacco. Banana trees are cultivated by both sexes; the women exploit the fruit while the men use the stems as cattle feed. Other crops are the responsibility of the women. Apart from small quantities of sweet potatoes, arrowroot and manioc, most of the women’s farming time is devoted to growing peas, various types of beans, and cereals (millet, sorghum and finger millet). The women sow, weed, harvest and store the crops; activities of which some phases require the help of many hands if they are to be finished in time. Thus, weeding is the weak point in these farming practices: because of the fast growth of weeds, stimulated by the combination of heat and moisture, the gardens need to be weeded on two occasions (kurîmira, kurugîra) if they are to produce anything. This represents a burdensome task in terms of both time and energy, and the mutual aid of women and girls is crucial. The ripening cereals that are vulnerable to devastation by birds are watched by the boys. Harvesting is a delicate phase because of the uncertain weather: the only real regularity in rains and droughts is statistical, and if the crops are wet when they are harvested and stored, they will rot, as they would anywhere else in the world. Threshing the cereals and beans rallies the efforts of all the neighbors, men and women together, who take it in turns to attend to each family’s harvest.

10The two annual rainy seasons allow two harvests each year, requiring an almost continuous organization of the crop calendar. The crops differ from one season to the next because one season is cooler than the other. The dispersion of gardens over different levels of the hillside, where the crops that grow have different requirements, requires the coordination of activities between the different dwelling places of the family. If the family is polygynous, it may split into different homes according to the different levels of the hillside. Sometimes, temporary shelters are erected in the gardens, or somebody is housed by parents, relatives, “godparents” or age-set friends. Generally, family establishments are set up between fourteen hundred and seventeen hundred meters altitude. This range can vary depending on the hillside’s exposure to wind, but it corresponds to the level at which living conditions are most agreeable: it is not too hot, too dry, too cold or too wet. These characteristics are all the more appreciated because they have such an important effect on people’s health. Higher altitudes are wet and cold, facilitating the spread of lung diseases, while the lowlands are notorious for being infested with mosquitoes. However, in these high hills with their topography broken by gullies and folds in the land, where the distances to be covered between different levels may grow daunting, the areas of habitation divide into two groups, accompanied by a dissociation between the territorial divisions in which establishments are concentrated on higher ground and those in which they tend to look downhill.

  • 3  The rule that a cow could only be exchanged for a bull was relaxed during the colonial era; one co (...)

11Tending the livestock is a specifically male activity, including the milking, which is, in principle, performed solely by the men and which continues throughout the year, since drought only exceptionally interrupts lactation. The difference from crop farming lies not only in the distribution of labor or purely technical questions. Particular legal features restrict (restricted) the right to possess livestock. One has to be a married man, which immediately excludes warriors and uninitiated boys, but there are also limits of another nature, depending on the kinds of animals being raised. The acquisition and possession of small ruminants is not subject to any particular restrictions, but heifers and cows cannot be obtained in exchange for goats, sheep or agricultural products. There are five means by which a man can acquire cattle: inheritance, bridewealth, blood price, raids and the gwato contract. The first three possibilities present themselves occasionally, according to the deaths, marriages and crimes that occur. There remain the other two possibilities. All head of cattle the warriors bring back from raids automatically accrue to the Fathers of the territorial section, to dispose of however they see fit. There is a custom of entrusting a cow acquired in a raid to a widow who needs it. Under these conditions, an adult man who has received nothing or lost everything must undertake an operation intended to seal a gwato contract. He exchanges products from his gardens for small livestock, especially goats, at the following rate: six or seven kithati (a type of sack women carry on their backs and which is used as a measure) full of “seeds” (black beans and other types of bean, sorghum, millet, finger millet) for one fine goat. In this way he must obtain three goats, which he can then exchange for a bull, thanks to which he can seal the contract known as gwato, from the verb kûgwata, “to hold”. The nominal form gwato designates that which binds the two men, one who brings the bull and the other who accepts it in return for the right to use a cow which remains his property but which he entrusts to his partner to raise. The cow’s young are shared out in the following manner: all male calves go to the cow’s owner, while the first female calf is kept by the breeder, who returns the cow to its owner once this calf is weaned. Through the intermediary of this heifer or cow, called by the particular name of mungo, and its offspring, the lender and the borrower remain forever obliged to each other, and a contract of this kind never really comes to an end. The gwato contract is a cattle bond of multifarious significance: it is reminiscent of certain features of the ties of affinal alliance, which will be examined in the next chapter; it also demonstrates a sort of organized scarcity that confers extra value to the cow and a particular position to the cow’s owner. This latter has cows and obligors scattered over the Nyambene Hills, thus widening the field of his relations and reducing, by dispersion, the risks of epizootic and theft. The gwato bonds that are sealed by the owner of a herd of cattle are the sign of a certain respect, since nobody would seek to enter into a gwato contract with a man of poor reputation; conversely, it would be futile to entrust a cow to an individual known to be negligent or dishonest. Lastly, the number of operations of exchange of the products of crop farming for the coveted object that is the cow is another manifestation of the opposition between the cycle of the rain and the cycle of the sun. Here, their coexistence is ensured by means of the successive conversions between seeds, goats, the bull and the cow3.

  • 4  Nowadays, this is the preferred season for cattle-rustling in trucks.

12Care of the livestock is organized in different ways. The herds tend to be separated so as not to mix the cattle with the small ruminants. At altitude, the animals, led by a father or a boy, graze alongside the paths or in the long-established prairies that form large clearings in the forest and also serve as public meeting grounds. In the lowlands, there is no scarcity of grazing land, and the limits are imposed rather by the dispersion of watering holes. Very often, although it is not a strict rule, the warriors are entrusted with the task of watching over the cattle in the lowlands. This measure chiefly characterizes the territorial sections of the north-western Igembe and the northern Tigania, where the relative importance of livestock breeding is strengthened by a combination of favorable factors, notably the absence of tsetse flies (which is also a sign of a certain human density) and the resources in pastureland and waters rich in calcium and salts—minerals that are lacking in the hills with their volcanic subsoil, and which are an important element in the health and beauty of both livestock and humans. At the end of February, during ekanga, when the heat and drought are starting to take hold, a movement takes shape, in which people and animals move uphill and draw closer together. The domestic and wild herds move closer to the Nyambene Hills, towards the springs that do not dry up and the grazing that endures. This is the most favorable season for raids, launched by the warriors of the Tigania-Igembe or organized against the latter by the agro-pastoralists of the dry lowlands4. The return of the rains reverses the trend; the herds and populations disperse and move away from the hills until the next hot, dry season.

Ill. 25a, b, c & d — Pots being molded and baked, Kunati, 1987

Ill. 25a, b, c & d — Pots being molded and baked, Kunati, 1987

Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.

13Crop and livestock breeding provide the main food resources and the raw materials for certain objects, but other activities also make a significant contribution. Twice a year, after each rainy season, the men harvest honey from hives made of hollowed-out trunks and suspended from the branches of trees in the forest. Honey is a delicacy appreciated and consumed as such, but it is above all fermented to make mead. Hunting with bow and arrow is practiced occasionally by all the men and boys, if only to drive the monkeys away from the crops or to shoot (discreetly, because it is now illegal) some antelope with tasty meat. In former times, other more elaborate forms of big game hunting existed, using pittraps or spears. Certain families, who practiced them more often, were renowned for their knowledge of hunting techniques, but the economic division between hunters and agro-pastoralists, if it might have existed in these hills a very long time ago, is now unknown to these populations. The only strict limit concerns the eating of game, which is forbidden to members of a council specialized in judging cases of witchcraft, the njuri ncheke.

14Foraging provides a very wide range of plants for many different uses, which we can only briefly mention here. The children who fetch the water and firewood or herd the small livestock gather numerous sharp-tasting berries along the sides of the paths, which they play with as much as they eat but which are a non-negligible source of vitamins. The women collect a variety of wild plants, notably types of green vegetables that are used, like sweet potato leaves, to enhance bean stews. Botanical knowledge also covers pasture plants, the range of medicinal plants used to treat humans and animals, and the roots and tubers that are crushed, mixed with castor oil or butter and variously-colored clays to produce cosmetics. Craft activity transforms the most diverse materials: natural fibers used to make string and bags (which, like pottery, is done by the women), wicker, wood, animal carcasses, of which nothing is wasted, especially the skins and leathers from which clothes are (were) made. Certain activities are reserved for men or for women, otherwise everyone can turn their hand to them, and those who are skilful earn something of a reputation. The only exception to this is the work of the founder and blacksmith. Only mûturi (pl. aturi) can smelt iron from the iron-bearing sands and work it into the most varied objects, ranging from farm tools to weapons and including all sorts of blunt instruments.

15Each family unit has its own productions, and within it, the husband and wife manage everything that accrues to them. The husband has dominion over the whole production, but a wife who feels herself to have been lastingly wronged by an abusive husband has (or had) several options open to her, not least of which is ostracism by the local council of women. Having said that, the idea of a household economy, like the notion of self-sufficiency, very much fails to characterize the pre-colonial economy of the Tigania-Igembe. Multiple exchanges and cooperation existed outside the family circle, starting with the ties of neighborhood and gwato contracts. Barter with more or less distant partners is not a means to sell off some kind of elusive surplus, but a central element of the system in the domestic sphere and, more broadly, in the Tigania-Igembe economy: barter in the mid-slope markets where women exchange highland and lowland products; barter between the regions by means of tibûû expeditions, undertaken during the thaano season, when the women, escorted by warriors carrying spears with their points plugged as a sign of peace, bring sacks of grain and packets of tobacco to the pastoralists of the lowlands in exchange for small ruminants and skins; barter with the pastoralists who climb up into the hills to obtain various foodstuffs, tobacco and ironwork. When the mother and father are members of multiple networks of exchange of goods and services, it makes the family unit all the more solid and viable.

16A similar discrepancy with regard to the conventional view can be observed in the modes of consumption. As much as the daily intake of food is an individual, one could almost say intimate operation, so other circumstances are characterized by commensality: mutual aid in different types of work, all sorts of feasts and ceremonies, the merry-making of age-sets, or the meetings of men’s and women’s councils. Every head of household aims to meet these expenses honorably, and the women are equally concerned, because they are also the agents of an important politico-ritual complex. Depending on the circumstances, the food may be vegetable or meat: in the latter case, the appropriate animal is killed in the proper manner and the carcass and offal are shared out according to precise rules. These feasts are enlivened by the consumption of millet beer made by the women or the mead and cane alcohol whose production falls to the men. The condition of the warriors of the gaaru epitomizes the importance of communal contribution and consumption. Over the course of about ten years, the warriors are fed and supported by the families of the territorial section: not only the families whose sons are warriors, but also the others, who participate in a number of ways. When the warriors are not in the gaaru, the uninitiated girls enter to sweep up and straighten the beds; they maintain the supplies of water and firewood and if necessary patch up the coating on the walls, but they must never, under any circumstances, touch the central post. They also bring food prepared in the family kraals. A variety of black beans called nchaabî is reserved for eating by the warriors: although they take many hours to cook, these beans are also very filling and provide a useful reserve of calories before setting out on a raid. In turn, each father who has a son, or any man who wishes to honor the warriors and thereby gain prestige, offers a bull or a few head of small livestock, which the warriors share out in the gaaru, smoke-drying certain pieces. No one, and especially not the girls, must see the warriors eat: they withdraw to their gaaru or to remote spots in the bush. The good physical condition and strength of the warriors are a security for the community, but their good looks and health are equally important in that they draw admiration and are the pride of the territorial section.

17This definition, or the unusual scope of the household economy, is accompanied by other characteristics that deserve mention, although they are not exceptional. Of course, the objective of economic activity is to sustain everybody and to feed one’s guests honorably, but its intrinsic efficiency is also measured by the possibility of coping with the shortages that occur for the most diverse reasons. In this respect, although the old economy of the Tigania-Igembe was vulnerable (as testified by the list of mîaka ya mpala or “years of tiredness” the elderly still recall), it certainly allowed these populations to respond to these difficulties, and to do so more quickly than the (agro-) pastoralists living in the dry zones. To such an extent that the Nyambene Hills represent a mountainous oasis where one can take refuge during a drought, or even settle, provided one respects certain requirements: a good number of the Tigania-Igembe are sedentarized former pastoralists. On the other hand, the objective of accumulating wealth is vain, not that it has been ignored or scorned—the Tigania have the envied reputation of having been rich in cattle and cereals—but because it is limited by structural obstacles. The harvests can be kept for a time, and a lot of know-how is devoted to conserving them for as long as possible, but there comes a time when they must be either consumed or exchanged. In comparison, livestock allow for a sort of rudimentary capitalization, which is well-known. However, the owners of large herds cannot avoid yielding to the incessant requests they receive, and in any case, their wealth is exposed to rapid destruction on account of epizootics or raids. It is true that gwato contracts can be seen as a means to reduce the risks by dispersing them, but the form they take actually leads to the opposite result, because they help to maintain a scarcity. In the end, it is this artificially maintained scarcity, rather than an unequal distribution of wealth, that creates a distinction between those who possess a herd of cattle and those who, for one reason or another, are at least temporarily excluded from owning one. This observation also holds true for the blacksmith, who possesses the technical means to accumulate lumps of smelted iron (blooms) and iron objects; but this craftsman is precisely subject to proscriptions that confine him to certain exchanges and prevent him from getting rich.

2. The mûciî cycle

18A man who has been a warrior for some time and now wishes to get married returns to his father’s establishment, something he has not done (except under exceptional circumstances) since he entered the gaaru. However, he does not penetrate the kraal; he remains outside and prepares to light a fire, to keep warm. When he learns of this, the father comes out and asks him why he is building a fire outside. He does not ask his son to enter, but invites him to go and build his own house (mûciî). This way of requesting and obtaining the father’s consent marks the beginning of a new phase: the man gradually becomes detached from his condition of warrior and from the gaaru where he has spent his life since initiation. The idea of a father and his initiated and then married son living in the same kraal is unthinkable. One saying, known to everyone, sums up this situation by explaining that a father and his son cannot share the same mwiriga, here meaning both the gateway to the family kraal and the gateway to the livestock enclosure. Any son wishing to set up on his own must have his gateway and found his own mûciî. The only exception to this rule concerns the youngest son, who can, although it is not an obligation, remain with his now-elderly parents, whom he takes care of. Except in this last case, the family according to the Tigania-Igembe is never extended. Residence is therefore always neolocal, but this ethnological convention loses its sense here. Finally, a son can choose either to remain in his father’s territorial section, or to leave and set up in another territorial section. When newly-married sons remain near their father’s establishment, there is a model governing the distribution of their homes, whereby the eldest son builds his kraal to the left (facing outwards) of the father’s kraal, aligned with the hut of his mother, who is the first wife; the second son sets up on the right; and so on alternately. However, sons whose own children are growing up end up moving somewhere else, sometimes taking their respective mothers with them.

19The negotiations in view of forming an affinal alliance between two mûciî are a lengthy process, and are examined in detail in the next chapter; they come to an end when the bridegroom’s set companions escort the young bride from her father’s home to that of her husband. Mature men, married for a long time, mark out and build the new enclosure and its entrance. This operation, which has the value of foundation, is designated by the term kwiriga mûciî, “to enclose the family establishment”. The verb kwiriga is used to denote all operations of enclosing, but it is also the verb of the noun mwiriga, of which we discover an additional meaning here. Inside the new kraal, the warriors build the wooden frame of the hut, the roof structure, and the interior layout on a site previously blessed by the bridegroom’s father: with the help of honey and invocations to Ngaï, he wishes the newlyweds to live well together. Like any other house, the thatch is then laid by the women of the neighborhood, who attach bundles of dried grass they have collected: only post-menopausal women and those who are neither pregnant nor having their periods take part in this operation. Then the bride’s mother-in-law, or in her absence a woman of the neighborhood, brings embers that are used to light the cooking hearth, riiko, composed of three stones (igaare, pl. maare): in turn, she scatters finger millet and honey, pronouncing blessings and wishing the couple to have children who will give rebirth to their grandparents. The young couple will share this rudimentary hut until the birth of their first child. During this period, the husband still spends part of his time in the house of the warriors, so that the shift from one state to the next is a gradual process.

20The birth of the first child marks the veritable entry into the life of a married man and woman. The family establishment is modified and takes on a more definitive character. Husband and wife no longer share the same hut. The husband builds his own hut on the right when leaving the kraal: he has stopped visiting his warriors’ gaaru, which might have been “uprooted” in the meantime, and he now has his own gaaru at home. The wife’s hut is opposite, on the left when leaving; she lives there with the young child. Subsequent births will take place in the wife’s hut, while conception will take place in the husband’s gaaru. Additional wives do not change this arrangement. The family grows to the rhythm of new births and the arrival of new wives. This statement may appear to be a truism, but in fact it covers one of the key issues of Meru social organization, which is, as we have seen, the problem of low fertility and low polygyny. The residence sheds lights on some of the practices involved in this vast topic. The long gap between births corresponds to the late age of weaning, around five years on average and sometimes more, before which the spouses are not supposed to have sexual relations. The separate residence of the two spouses in different huts facilitates the application of this rule, which is also justified by representations and value judgments on the reasons that keep the husband away from his wife. A mother constantly accompanied by a young child, even if he is already a few years old, is considered to smell bad: she is not desirable in the sense that the smell of the child is offensive to the husband, as if the child still carried the trace of his life in the womb, which is prolonged in the maternal hut of his birth, the name of which, gîkumbi, contains the idea of gestation. One rather unpleasant way to designate the unweaned child, nthûirwa, conveys a similar meaning that refers, through the idea of injury and a bleeding wound, to a mode of life that is still organic. The maternal hut embodies the lasting bond that exists between a mother and the child she continues to breastfeed, in contrast to the husband’s gaaru where conception takes place and the huts in which the children live after weaning. The growth of the family results in the building of new huts within the kraal, which is itself extended. When they grow older, the boys sleep in the neighborhood or subsection dormitory and then, on initiation, they move into the warriors’ gaaru of the territorial section. From this point of view, outside dormitories are like outbuildings or extensions of the family kraal; conversely, one might say the dormitories of non-initiates and the gaaru of the warriors federate the domestic units of their territory. The livestock enclosure is also extended, and the possibility of owning one’s own breeding bull (nyamba) discreetly marks a man’s access to a certain degree of esteem: the head of the family no longer mixes his herd with those of the others, now it is the opposite.

From gûtûra matû to mwariki

21The development of the family establishment is punctuated with diverse festive and ritual events that both confirm and trigger the modification of its components and mark the progress of time. The rituals that highlight and celebrate the accomplishment of individuals are described as kûbwithia kiongoana, literally “to repair the head”, in other words to favor the formation of the head, which is regarded as the last part of the human body to develop. The quintessential family feast, which lasts several days at the home of the father wishing to celebrate his success and the development of his children, is called gûtûra matû or “the piercing of the ears”. Gruel, bean stews, millet beer and mead are consumed in considerable quantities by the largest possible number of guests: neighbors, blood relatives, relatives by affinity and generation-set companions, some of whom come from far away. Only a family with sufficient provisions and with the social skills to enlist help (favors that will, of course, have to be returned) can meet, with ostentation, the expenditure needed for this feast of abundance and prosperity. However, the rite must be performed, and some families celebrate their gûtûra matû more modestly. Conditions of another nature must be respected. The maternal uncle is required to give his consent and blessing for the gûtûra matû of his sister’s children. The presence of mwariki, representatives of the last grade, is also indispensable: these Accomplished carry out the “ear-piercing” of the family’s children, and they are supposed to show the father how to kill and cut up the bull he offers on this occasion. The sacrifice of an animal from the herd always follows the same protocol: the bull, in this case, is held on the ground by several men and asphyxiated by means of tufts of grass stuffed into its mouth and nose. By suffocation, the creature is deprived of the breath which, in animals and men alike, is the part of the creator or supreme principle Ngaï-Murungu, who rules the world. By the same stroke, there is a transfer in favor of the vital breath and the growth of the beneficiaries, namely the children whose ears are being pierced. The mwariki pretend to teach the father the rules, known to everybody, governing the cutting up of the carcass and the sharing-out of the different pieces. Variations exist depending on the circumstances and the place, but the principles are the same: half of the ribs are given to the warriors and the other half to the boys who tend the herd. The men share the fatty hump (nthuruku) and the legs: two legs (one front and one back) go to the father’s generation-set companions and the other two to the representatives of the territorial section and the neighborhood; the mwariki share the rump (called ûthinji); the tongue and liver are given to the old people who have few or no teeth left; the women receive the viscera and the perineum; the girls get the neck and the head, and the young boys get the heart, the lungs and the testicles. All these pieces are prepared right away, roast or boiled and eaten.

22After the feast, the young unmarried men and the women leave the kraal. On the skin of the bull, spread out on the ground, the sons and daughters of the father of the family sit in a circle in order of birth and in a clockwise direction. The mwariki then approach, in order to pierce the lobes of their ears—the action from which the rite derives its name—using a little bow and an arrow of the same type as that used to draw blood from the jugular vein of cattle. The blood that drips from the pierced ears is collected in a piece of broken gourd held under each ear. To prevent the hole from closing up again, a little stick coated in honey is introduced, later to be replaced by ever thicker sticks with the intention of gradually enlarging the hole. Various pieces of metal, leather and wooden jewelry inserted over the years decorate the ears and help to shape them by their weight. The holes end up so big that an adult can touch his lips with his earlobes. A polygynous father must offer as many bulls as he has wives, and each skin is occupied by the children of one wife. The mwariki start with the children of the first wife and then follow the order of subsequent marriages, respecting the order of births in each case. The same arrow is used to pierce the ears of all the children with the same father, but a different piece of broken gourd is used to collect the blood of children with different mothers. The father’s generation-set companions use the skin of the bull or bulls to make sandals (kirato) for the boys and clothes or thong necklaces (kîmukwa) for the girls. A father who subsequently has other children or another wife does not have to repeat the ritual; he simply invites a mwariki to come and pierce the ears of the latecomers. Gûtûra matû celebrates the success of a head of family, the fertility of his wives and the health of their children, while at the same time highlighting their position in the generation-set system. The man stopped being a warrior some time ago, but he is not yet Father of the country. At the same time as a head of family has been initiated into killing a bull, his children have had their ears pierced by the same people who initiated their father, the mwariki, who are from the same gîtiba-division as their host. This feast, which takes place at the scale of the kraal, displays the father and his family’s membership of the generational division that does not presently hold power, and incorporates them into the system of relations specific to each gîtiba.

23Other gestures or rituals, performed more discreetly, mark the maturing of children and therefore that of their parents, and punctuate the cycle of development of the domestic unit. When a wife informs her husband that their daughter is pubescent, she prepares a gruel that husband and wife will, exceptionally, eat together, as if it has become less improper for them to share food. The appearance of a girl’s periods is a precursor of her future capacities as a progenitor; from now on, it will not be possible for the parents to have sexual relations during their daughter’s menses. Through the ritual of nthaaria nguû or “tearing the garment”, undertaken long after the eldest girl’s puberty but also well before her initiation, the father presents his daughter to his generation-set companions. The maturing of boys leads to their installation in the non-initiates’ dormitory of the neighborhood or subsection, where they will spend their nights from then on.

24The most important step forward in the domestic cycle is the children’s initiation. Here, the rules of the generation-set system are combined with the rules of the domestic sphere. The boys’ order of birth, all mothers taken together, must be respected. However, there is some disagreement among informants about whether siblings and half-siblings were initiated one after another in order of birth, whatever their gender, or whether there were separate orders of birth for boys and girls. It is possible that the rules and combinations of rules varied between polygynous families and the more numerous families that are not polygynous. Nevertheless, there is no exception to the rule of the eldest child first, and the order of births was always recognized in one way or another. One particular ritual allowed to avoid dealing with the abnormal child, by putting him into a big sack with his younger brother, who then came out of the sack first, thus simulating a permutation in the order of births so the next child could be initiated without a hitch. In addition, various reasons could prompt a father to defer the initiation of his children. We have seen that the non-initiates, both boys and girls, make an active contribution to the family’s economy: given the farming calendar, growing methods and the way livestock is herded, their contribution is decisive—all the more so when the family is small. These reasons tend to delay the initiation of girls and boys, but a father cannot unduly postpone the event. Uninitiated daughters are exposed to the risk of calamitous pregnancies, and sons growing up become so independent that they pay no heed to their father’s threats to curse them. From this strict point of view, wives who are more fertile or a subsequent marriage offer an appreciable advantage and additional room for maneuver. The initiation of sons also marks the moment when the parents’ set reaches the grade of political power. The adults of this age devote themselves to public affairs and gradually cease their reproductive activities. This new phase, after a period of life focused on the family, is accompanied by a return to pronounced sociability of the generation set. Husbands and wives are busy, separately, in their respective sets and take part in councils (kiama) that address the most diverse questions. However, the actual involvement of each person is a matter of disposition and individual abilities.

25The departure and marriage of the children, the birth of grandchildren and retirement from political affairs herald a further step forward in the domestic cycle. Having become grandparents, a man and his wife or wives prepare the feast of mwariki. They undertake this when they have no more children to initiate and, ideally, when their eldest son is preparing his gûtûra matû, a rule expounded in such a way that at the beginning of the study, it appeared to be impossible to dissociate the two rites, so firmly was their synchronization anchored in the minds of the elderly. Some informants explained that one single bull was sufficient for the two rites: the eldest son, whose children were going to have their ears pierced, presented a bull to the mwariki of the division “for the [his] father”. The son thereby offered a bull to enable his father to become mwariki. By accepting this gift, the mwariki consented to the promotion of the new mwariki, teaching their sons how to sacrifice the bull and piercing the ears of the children sitting on its hide. This gift a son makes for his father has repercussions that also affect the grandchildren: through its sacrifice, the same bull is the vector of the “vital breath” and patrifiliation over three generations in the same division. This synchronization between adjacent and alternate generations, or between a father, his eldest son and his grandchildren, gradually disappeared during the colonial period, which explains the contradictory accounts of the rules involved. But it clearly demonstrates the general model in which, over time, the generations succeed each other at the right distance, without either overlapping or drifting too far apart.

26The mwariki feast represents an expenditure that has constantly risen under the pressure of the Igembe, among whom, even before the colonial conquest according to the elderly, this ceremony was ever more highly valued and extolled and therefore costly, and even its name spread among the Tigania, to the point where it ended up replacing the old term ithûngi. To become mwariki, one must organize a large feast in one’s mûciî, to which all those who are already mwariki are invited and treated to an abundance of food: gourds of gruel, buckets of honey, small livestock, notably a ram, that are cooked and eaten without further ado, and lastly a bull, which suffers the usual fate of bulls in such circumstances and which the candidate or his son offers specifically to those of his nthukî-generation who have already performed mwariki. The breath of the sacrificed animal strengthens the breath of the man and his wife or wives, whose heads “straighten up” and who become mwariki. The simultaneous promotion of the spouses is so marked that the elders compare the rite to a second marriage (somewhat like our golden or diamond wedding anniversaries). Whereas in the previous grade, husband and wife (or wives), absorbed as they were by political affairs, performed separate activities in their respective sets, in the mwariki grade they draw closer together and reform their couples: this reunion is all the more significant since it is synchronized with the “piercing of the ears” of the grandchildren who have taken their names and given rebirth to them.

Fig. 14 — The mwariki - Accomplished person and the synchronization of domestic and generational cycles

Fig. 14 — The mwariki - Accomplished person and the synchronization of domestic and generational cycles
  • 5  The loss of the herbarium collected during my surveys has made it impossible to give a botanical n (...)

27An additional link appears in the mwariki name given to the newly promoted man. In principle, this is the mwariki name of his patrilineal grandfather’s grandfather, in other words a repetition over five generations which emphasizes membership of the generational gîtiba division and forms, in total, an alignment over a depth of seven generations, five above and two below with the grandchildren. Here, the accomplishment that characterizes the individual of the mwariki grade finds a new resonance: it marks the completion of the cycles, the conjunction of which expresses the organization of the destiny of individuals and generation sets and the mastery of time (fig. 14). Such a culmination explains why the promotion of the mwariki takes on such an appearance of consecration or enthronement. Their hair is shaved off, and on their heads, coated with a mixture of mutton fat and a white powder called ndao, is placed the nchîîra, a crown made of white beads for the men and blue beads for the women. Each new mwariki is given a finely-worked stool, lûlinga (lûria in a shortened form) and a flywhisk called ndithitha or meu, in principle made of bone and giraffe hair. A special, black stick is given to the men, the murai jwa mwariki, specially cut from the muthei tree5. Ideally, this stick, kept after his death, will become that of his eldest son when his turn comes to become mwariki. Between themselves, the mwariki use particular and in theory secret greetings (Kûria mwariki!) that derive from the ability of these masters of time to perform sacrifices for the well-being of everybody and to work for the maturing of individuals.

3. Inheritance and dispersal

  • 6  The ritual for a grandmother is more or less identical, but her death does not have the same conse (...)

28The death and funeral of the founder of the mûciî marks the end of the domestic cycle. On the announcement of a grandfather’s death, his sons and his grandchildren (including his daughters’ children) get together. They must all be present, which can take a considerable time, since most of them are dispersed over localities that may be very distant. Apart from these descendants, no one else is involved, neither blood relatives, nor relatives by marriage (apart from the spouse), nor generation-set companions. The death is the concern of the people of the mûciî whose founder has just died; the daughters of the deceased are not there because they are supposed to never return to their father’s house, but their children are present, thereby underlining their connection to the man who has just died. The women of the household—the widow or widows and, if they live there, the youngest son’s wife—attend the funeral but only as spectators: a woman cannot touch the body of a dead man. The ceremony is led by the eldest son assisted by his younger brothers; the youngest son can take the place of the eldest son if the latter should be absent, and the son of a brother, in the widest sense of the word, can officiate for a man who has only had daughters. The eldest son prepares his father’s corpse by coating it with the fat of a sacrificed ram and then wrapping it in the ram’s fleece. The deceased is lifted up by the sons, who are lined up in order of age: the younger ones carry the body and legs and the eldest son holds up the head and leads his brothers towards the exit. “Supporting the head” is the expression used to designate the funeral of an Accomplished man. During his lifetime, an individual who holds his head in his hands is thought to be trying to kill himself. The sons carry the body to the kiara; if there is not enough cow dung in it on that particular day, some is brought from the neighbors’ kraal. Here, the sons set down their father’s body wrapped in the fleece, laying it on its right side. In this way, they free the left side, the location of the man’s heart, which is considered to be the organ of speech: the pathways of the blood, food and air converge on the heart (nkoro), and from it issues language. The eldest son throws handfuls of finger millet, spits out mead and addresses prayers to his father, asking for his help and blessing: Ithe ngwata kûtharima, “Father, help me to bless”. The grandchildren are present, but they keep away from the preparations. They are asked not to sob and to hold back their tears. Gathered around the kiara, they sing a sort of lullaby in which they reassure their grandfather: Jûûjû wakira mariangû twinthe nookûo tûrîî, “Grandfather, don’t be afraid of death, we are all here”. Jûûjû is the reciprocal term of address and reference used between grandparents and grandchildren. The wake then begins, and will last for about two months, until the body is deemed to be sufficiently decomposed. The corpse is surrounded by a thorny hedge and several fires are kept burning to drive away the hyenas and the bad smells. The sons take turns to stand guard, especially at night. When the corpse is judged to have decomposed enough, it is buried under the manure6.

  • 7  Only the populations in the north of Tigania, turned more towards cattle keeping or perhaps influe (...)

29The rules governing the sharing of the inheritance are invariably presented in the following manner: the goods are shared out equally between all the sons, but, it is always added, the eldest or youngest son or a son who has the trust of his father can receive a larger share7. A principle of equality between the heirs and a principle of primogeniture, the need to respect a common rule and the possibility for a father to exercise his free choice, are all affirmed at the same time. This double contradiction alone sums up the very particular dynamics of the Tigania-Igembe mûciî. One factor that helps to explain certain aspects is that a man’s goods and chattels are of a heterogeneous nature, making it difficult to apply the principle of equality. First and foremost, there are the livestock, the beehives, the cultivated gardens, the planted gardens, the family kraal and its buildings, and certain objects like the stick and stool of the Accomplished person. There are also the credits and debts resulting from gwato contracts, bride price in the widest sense of the term—as we shall see, this bonds a “taker” and a “giver” of bride over three generations—and payments connected with disputes brought before the council of Fathers which a man cannot help being involved in at least once in his life. Lastly, a decision may have to be taken about the fate of the widow (s) and any children that remain to be brought up.

30Such an inventory explains why it is said that a sensible man shares out his goods while he is still alive. Men who are getting old end up resolving to do this, all the more so as they remain the owners of the goods distributed until their death. This disposition underlines at the same time the permanence of an institution, the mûciî the father founded, and the singular situation of his sons. On principle, a mûciî exists just as long as its founder lives. The sons, whatever their ages and respective positions, cannot dispose of the goods they have received however they see fit; they are considered dependents of their father’s mûciî, despite the fact that they are obliged to leave on initiation and to found their own mûciî on getting married. However, we must examine the import of this dependence. Access to means of subsistence does not present any real difficulties; any son, if he so wishes, can have a thriving family and do without his father’s goods, and this is what most of them do when they first set up on their own. On the other hand, relations between a father and his sons can grow acrimonious for several different reasons: delayed initiation, disagreement about a sister’s marriage, an obfuscatory response to a son wishing to get married, unequal attention given to the different sons. The deterioration in relations between a father and a son who is growing up goes through successive phases in which a father may pretend to ignore a request, then refuse to give a blessing and finally curse his son. Blessings and curses structure the relations between parents and children and, more broadly, between the old and the young, between those who precede and those who follow. A recalcitrant son may treat with disdain the curse his father will have been sure to direct against him. Nevertheless, the time will come when the son will see fit to offer a goat by way of a request for reconciliation, which his father may or may not agree to accept. This is because among the Tigania-Igembe, a curse can be lifted, whereas among the Maasai, for example, it can never be retracted. An ageing father may also seek to ensure a son will take care of him and attend to unfinished business. In this respect, the youngest son, or one of the younger sons, is better placed than the eldest, who is very likely to have established himself further away, if only to escape from the father’s supervision that is ever more burdensome for him because of the consequences of initiation. The son who looks after the father may be favored in the distribution, but this decision, left to the father’s discretion, is also sure to poison relations, this time between the brothers. The funeral which all the sons must attend restores order to the relations that may have been strained by past events, and constitutes the last solemn occasion on which the sons, and the grandchildren, come together. It is the moment when the sharing of the inheritance becomes effective, whether or not it was actually decided while the father was alive, and when the mûciî is broken up. The sons, now fathers in their own right, are at the head of their own mûciî. The eldest son, and through his intervention the other brothers, receives from their father the ultimate power he possessed: the power to bless and its negative, the power to curse. Once more, any man who has become a father has the power to bless, but the supreme efficacy of the blessing derives from the fact that it has been received from a father who transmits it on his death. The vital breath of his successors takes over from a breath that has ceased, as expressed in the action of the eldest son. This latter places a piece of raw meat in his dead father’s mouth, thus blocking the orifice by which words arrived from the heart, which no longer beats. It is not possible for two generations to bless or curse at the same time, and the upcoming generation only start to do so when the previous generation has stopped. Nevertheless, access to the full capacity to bless is a formidable privilege, because it is specific to the generation over which no one has precedence any longer, and which is under the direct aegis of the supreme principle Ngaï-Murungu. With the exception of one word, the phrase used by a son when he asks his father to help him bless is the same as that used by a man in prayers addressed to the supreme principle: [Ithe]/ [Ngaï] ngwata kûtharima.

31Among the Tigania-Igembe, the sons inherit the father’s cattle directly, in the sense that the sharing of the livestock does not take into account the presence of the mother, as it does among so-called matrifocal pastoralists. Here, a father does not give his wife (or wives) her own cow; only the man can milk the cows and distribute the milk. However, this strongly established system does not mean all the cattle inherited follow the lines from father to son. A man can transmit animals—and goods—to individuals other than his sons: his grandsons, whether they are his sons’ or his daughters’ children, uterine nephews (his sisters’ sons), godsons for whom he has acted as “father for the day” for their circumcision, or the father in njuri. In certain circumstances, a cow that has been given in payment or compensation may fall to a wife, sister or mother, who transmits it to her sons, most often to the youngest son. Along the same lines, in the case of polygynous marriage, the cattle to be paid as ndûgû bridewealth fall to the bride’s brother. Contrary to the rules governing the herd, which is codified by numerous, sometimes contradictory rules, the rules concerning cultivated plots of land appears to be rather rudimentary; at best, the rules on the inheritance of the herd are applied. There is a simple explanation for this: there was no lack of cultivable land in the Nyambene Hills, what was likely to be scarce was the workers needed to cultivate the land. A plot of land cleared by a man would be cultivated by his wife, and it would remain at their disposal as long as it was being used. Sometimes, a daughter-in-law would tend a plot indicated by her mother-in-law or the use of which had been transmitted by a mother to one of her sons. A man and his wife could also start a garden on a plot previously cleared by someone else, simply by asking the latter for permission to do so. As one can imagine, things changed during the colonial period due to the change of sovereignty, the increasing population density, the restrictions on mobility and the spread of tree crops. “Custom” was then invoked as the justification for new practices and new rules.

32The son who finally receives a larger share is like the successor to his father inasmuch as he manages the matrimonial debts and credits, the deceased’s cattle contracts, and if necessary, the education of any young children. This last question becomes particularly pressing when a father dies before becoming Accomplished; the local council of Fathers—at the level of the subsection, or higher, if need be—is the deciding authority in the case of disputes, which frequently arise. The premature death of a father is the only occasion on which the Fathers of the country accept for a son to be initiated earlier than planned, so that he can inherit and succeed his father. One of the reasons behind this is to avoid the dead father’s family being taken in charge by one of his brothers, as permitted by the rules, because brothers have a bad reputation for neglecting or despoiling a dead brother’s children. This is the context in which the strategic position of the sisters or wives comes to light; the role of the widow is the one for which men openly concede the importance of the woman. The rule of levirate marriage with a brother of the late husband is formulated, but I only ever saw it applied once, and that was in a family reputed to never do anything like everyone else. The deceased’s wives remain widows, a situation that can be compared with the Maasai, among whom it is forbidden for them to be inherited. The Tigania-Igembe do not openly state this impossibility, but their practice amounts to the same thing; a situation that should be related to the generation-set system. A widow does not cease to belong to the set of wives she joined at the moment of her marriage; she can enjoy a lawful relationship (bankiro) with a lover from her husband’s set—whether her husband is alive or dead. If the widow should have a child, her late husband is considered to be the father. The fact that the widow belongs to the set system also explains why the council of Fathers can be called on to settle questions of succession and inheritance and why they have the right to intervene in the fate of the widow and orphans of their late companion, in the same way as they played an important role in their rites of passage. A widow is invested de facto with the responsibility of head of the family; it is up to her to look after the children and defend them against the covetousness of the dead man’s brothers. It is usually she who brings disputes before the councils of Fathers, who usually decide in favor of the children, especially if they are orphans. Thus, for example, one sister was married to a man who raised his wife’s young brother, that is to say his brother-in-law. One day, the latter received a message from the council of his late father’s section, informing him he should return to defend the plots of land inherited from his father which some of his agnates were trying to appropriate.

33The rules for sharing out the inheritance do little to strengthen the bonds between agnates. Although they are motivated by different reasons, these rules all exert a centrifugal effect, revealing a filiation that is not devoid of cognatic character. Rivalries are often exacerbated; resentment builds up between brothers and half-brothers, contributing to their dispersion after the death of their father. The misfortune that strikes a family is sometimes interpreted by the diviner-healer as a consequence of the curse of a father whose last wishes have not been respected. A son who is believed to be the victim of his father’s curse must then sacrifice a ram. One part of this sacrifice is left in the bush, raw, and the rest is cooked for the family. If the portion that has been left in the bush disappears in the days that follow—which is very likely to be the case—it is said that the nkoma kia jûûjû, the “spirit of the grandfather”, has eaten it. This is a sign that the dead father, by participating in the feast in his own way, has accepted the reconciliation. In other circumstances, a father who is undertaking to get his son initiated can ask for the help and blessing of his dead father by throwing handfuls of finger millet and spitting mead onto the kiara. There is an ideal according to which the eldest son comes to live in the father’s kraal, building his own gaaru in the same place and with the wood that can be recycled from his father’s gaaru. The son can now use his father’s mwiriga (entrance), since his father is now deceased. In practice, however, sons usually return to their respective mûciî-homes. If the youngest son is already established in the father’s gaaru, he will stay there, but this does not exclude the possibility of him moving out later and the residence being abandoned. Vestiges of the deserted mûciî will disappear, and over time, even its location will be forgotten. The Tigania-Igembe do not practice ancestor worship, an absence that must be underlined not as a defect or deficiency, but as a remarkable feature. It is worth dwelling on because of the resonance, concerning African societies, of representations of life after death, some of which border on cliché. The few gestures described above that are made towards the deceased fall far short of that. The name of the founder and his descendants is remembered for a while, but genealogical memory hardly goes further than the generation of the grandparents.

4. The meanings of mwiriga

34Our description of the family kraal and our analysis of the domestic cycle have brought to light a term of changing meaning, mwiriga. Depending on the context, this word can designate the gateway to the family kraal or the livestock enclosure, the clan, or the territorial section and subsection. To which we must add the final meaning of “category” or “species”, adding a further incentive, as if necessary, to explore the modes and content of this polysemy.

  • 8  The Taita, in south-eastern Kenya, identify their clans by number; the Mijikenda and the Kikuyu re (...)

35Mwiriga (pl. mîiriga) is a noun related to the verb kwiriga, which means “to enclose a field, a pasture, or a family kraal”. In other words, a very concrete act of delimitation and separation, the very one the fathers perform during the establishment of a new couple. The idea of discrimination can also be found in the other meaning, that of “category”, now only recognized by the elderly. Mwiriga is in fact used to express the categorization or classification of any collection of elements judged to be identical: objects, foodstuffs, plants, animals, people, or populations. Thus, “men”, “women”, “the young”, “the old”—in other words the categories of sex and age—are mwiriga. This term is a taxonomic operator, and it would not be unreasonable to imagine it might, in the conceptions of the Tigania-Igembe, subsume all categories, including those of the nthukî-generations. But this is not the case. My informants insisted that nthukî-generations and mwiriga-categories are irreducible to each other. The categories of politics and time exclude an extension or inclusion that logic alone would have permitted. There is a probable etymological link between kwiriga ( “to enclose”), mwiriga and the term imwî, which designates the number “one”8. It is therefore tempting to believe a relation may exist between the operations of delimitation and categorization and those of enumeration and quantification. It is impossible to come to a firm conclusion on this question, because of the insufficient state of description of the Bantu languages of these regions. However, this manner of proceeding, associating a division of space with a principle of categorization and enumeration can be found in the concept of etaalia (pl. mataalia) which, let us recall, designates the “age grades” and derives from a verb meaning “to pace out” a field, an enclosure, or the diameter of a hut one is going to build. The step as a unit allows one to measure, and thereby to distinguish between what comes under the simple category of age, on the one hand, and grade, on the other. It is difficult to go any further, but we can point out that in these two occurrences, the categorization includes a territorial component and leads to a principle of enumeration. Through this association, or reversible transition, between qualification and quantification, social issues are combined with enumeration and quantity, an observation that is not without interest when related to the principles of age and generation and the demographic shaping it implies. However that may be, the uses of the word mwiriga for the purposes of dividing up society lie at the intersection of these two major meanings: the category or species, and the delimited space.

  • 9  The other colors are referred to by the technonym rangî... rwa mîtî, “the color... of the trees”, (...)

36Mwiriga in the sense of patrilineal clan: each clan is identified by a proper noun, often composed along the lines of Antû wa... ( “People of...”) followed by a linking article and then a noun, the meaning of which is sometimes known. Thus, the verbatim meaning of Antûwamburi, condensed into Antûamburi, is “People of the goat”; Antûbaita, “People of the war”; Antûanthama, “Those who migrate”, and so on. Every clan also belongs to one of the three colors that are named in Kimeru, the Blacks, the Reds, the Whites9, following a ternary system identified a long time ago in Africa and which in this case refers firstly to the succession of night, dawn and day and then to a seriation of the three colors following the arrow of time. These latter gave rise to call-and-response songs in which each person in turn praised their color, rwimbo rwa njûrûrû. These songs, now forgotten, were sung as work or “gossip” songs in the gardens and during more festive occasions. The clans, which are numerous, have representatives scattered throughout the Nyambene Hills, but apart from their name they have no common references. People with the same clan name may belong to different colors. There is no eponymous ancestor, nor is there a council that might bring together the members or their representatives. Up to a certain point, the rule of exogamy delimits the clans. As we will see in the next chapter, true consanguinity is checked during marriage negotiations, when it is verified that the intended spouses have no known agnatic forebears, usually going back as far as the great-grandfathers. In the case of murder, then apart from the two head of cattle destined for the council organizing the payments, half of all the compensation paid is given to the maternal relatives and half to the close agnates (Lambert 1945, ms. ch. 1: 8-14). A clan is an aggregate of mûciî—Lambert speaks of “kinship cluster”—of which each father declares that he bears the name of the clan. There is nothing to structure the parts of this clan, neither genealogy nor a principle of segmentation of fusion. The Tigania-Igembe mwiriga is not so much a clan as a clan category.

37The only patrilineal unity composed of mûciari (pl. aciari) kin descending from a father is represented by the mûciî, a dimension clearly revealed by the use of this term in certain contexts. One way to designate the Meru Game Park, which lies to the south-east of the Nyambene Hills and is delimited at the expense of rangelands belonging to the Tigania-Igembe and other pastoralists, is to characterize it as mûciî jwa nyomoo cia kithaka, “the mûciî of the bush animals”, a way of referring, not without sarcasm, to the need to preserve animals by protecting their breeding and their young. Traits of character or distinctive features deemed to have been acquired at birth are explained by the individual’s mûciî of origin, and not by his clan identity. It is said of blacksmiths, destined for economic specialization and constrained to endogamy, that they belong to particular mûciî, and not to mwiriga (clans). Families entrusted with ritual functions, and of which the father, under certain circumstances, must work for the prosperity of everyone and sacrifice a male goat or a ram, are characterized as mûciî jwa nthenge ( “mûciî of the billy goat”) or mûciî jwa ngondu ( “mûciî of the sheep”). If, for whatever reason, one of these families should be absent, the function devolves upon another family of which the father, approached because of his universally recognized qualities, is prepared to accept the task. In certain cases, when the subject is raised of the order in which the first inhabitants arrived, people speak of the “little enclosure of the enclosure of the sheep” (kiîgû kia mûciî jwa ngondu) which preceded the “little enclosure of the enclosure of the goat” (kiîgû kia mûciî jwa nthenge or naathû): apart from the fact that sheep came before goats (before the cattle arrived), kiîgû is another word derived from the verb meaning “to enclose”, and another way of saying that the family kraal proceeded from the livestock enclosure. Lastly, on the subject of the mûgwe, the dignitary whose duty it is to bless the new generation sets and whose function is, in principle, transmitted from father to eldest son (to such a point that it has been possible, remarkably, to trace back through several genealogical links to a founding mûgwe among the Igembe), Bernardi (1959: 32, 71) reports the phrase used to express the idea of the permanence of the function and of the group entrusted with it: mûciî jwa mûgwe iukuraga, “the mûciî of the mûgwe always grows”—unlike the mûciî of ordinary people—whereas one might have expected the term mwiriga to be used.

38The reason for this situation is that mwiriga also and above all designates the territorial section. The country of the Tigania-Igembe is (was) composed of major territorial units called mwiriga and identified by a proper noun. Each territorial section can be recognized by its warriors’ gaaru and the kieni kia gaaru, the adjoining public ground which is used as grazing on a day-to-day basis. The territorial sections are in turn divided into three or four subsections, also called mwiriga, identified by a proper noun and endowed with a gaaru of non-initiates. These subsections are sometimes called after the three colors. Each one is composed of ntoora, “neighborhoods”, which have a clearing that serves as grazing and public ground for the members of the family kraals that make up the ntoora. This network is so clearly defined that it was adopted for a long time by the colonial administration for their territorial division of the land and can still be found nowadays without too much difficulty, despite the inevitable changes that have occurred in the meantime (see Appendix B). One thing appears obvious: as much as the mwiriga-clan is a category with blurred outlines and imprecise content, so the mwiriga-territory appears to be structured by various levels that all relate back to the generation system and stem from the local constituent principle, the warriors’ gaaru. However, the territorial subsection and the neighborhood are also the place and level at which the mwiriga can shift from territorial partition to clan category, as testified to by certain toponyms that cover names of clans and names of sections. A survey of the composition of the territorial section of Athiru Gaitî (see fig. 15) contains names that designate sections, clans, neighborhoods and even family kraals. Formerly, territorial expansion consisted in opening up a clearing to establish a new warriors’ gaaru and its public ground, and consecrating it by the sacrifice of a ram and the appropriate libations of mead and finger millet. This serves as the starting point for the system of subsections, in which certain clans might predominate for a time. For example, Athiru Gaitî, which means “The Lower Hearth” (kithetu designates the hearth of the warriors’ gaaru), was originally a cultivation front cleared by the people of Athiru Rujine (a division located slightly further north) before becoming an independent territorial section endowed with its own gaaru. Alongside this system, which enlightens the mode of settlement and appropriation of the Nyambene Hills, plots of land that had been cleared for cultivation were sometimes reused after a fallow period. In this case, the question of access to these plots might arise, but it was not automatic and it was sufficient to ask the previous users for their consent. Furthermore, one neighborhood contains representatives of various different clans, but over the long run, because of marriages or common territorial interests, the neighbors may consider themselves to be related, to such an extent that some of them adopt the clan that is numerically preponderant in the neighborhood. People who share the same territory end up feeling related to each other—one reason why it is good for boys to marry girls who have come from other sections or, conversely, why it is inevitable that some of them should establish their families elsewhere.

The sub-location of Athiru Gaitî (8000 inhabitants) corresponds to the former territorial section of the same name. It is divided into three territorial subsections (in capital letters) situated around the kieni kia gaaru (kk) or public ground of the former gaaru: ntune, meaning Red, to the north is the highest part, bordering Maua; bwethaa to the east, covers the mid-slopes; antûbakirû below, spreading from west to south-east, becomes gradually more arid and less densely populated. Formerly, there was a division between the People from Above, who were Reds and Blacks, and the People from Below, who were Whites. The list of names below was collected and cross-checked with elderly with whom I was accustomed to working. It would have been far beyond the means of this study to conduct a fully verified census. The aim was to discover the principles underlying the old organization of clan and territory, and to record the toponymy and onomastics. The proper nouns contain many linguistic and historiographic clues, and it would be interesting to draw up similar lists for other areas in the Nyambene Hills. However, the gathering of information is hindered by the innumerable disputes provoked by the land reform, which has still not been completed. Obtaining the exact name of the smallest locality sometimes requires a considerable investment in time, even more so for the other types of names (this survey was conducted in early 1987).

Ntune (2000 inhabitants)

Neighborhoods, ntoora

Clans, mwiriga
















Localities presented by some people as “neighborhoods”: Kireme (a mountain), Gecholo (khat gardens), Kaibû (gardens), Mulika (gardens).

Fig. 15 — Organization of territory and clans: the example of Athiru Gaitî in Igembe bwethaa (> 3000 habitants)

Neighborhoods, ntoora

Clans, mwiriga



Tatua or Kanguto


Mpitha (people of Amugaa live here)


Goroma (people of Antûbeiga)


Nkaria (people of Akeninga)


Keyone or Buone


Thoria (people of Amugaa)





[Mbai, Guguma,


Kuriri, Antûbeiga, Antûbankai]**



Kigene (a locality)

Antûbakirû (2500 inhabitants)

Neighborhoods, ntoora

Clans, mwiriga






Amwari (said to have been the first to settle)


Antûwamuti-Ntune (Red)


Antûwamuti-Njirû (Black)














Kithiaibuli (presented as the equivalent of Athimba)





* Different names of which people tend to say they are the same clan.
** The names in square brackets are given by some people as clan names, while other, more knowledgeable informants present them as family kraal
(mûciî) of the Bwethaa clan.

39All in all, the layout of the mûciî is clearly marked by the contradictory dynamics of the family kraal. As the way out, the mwiriga orientates the mûciî as if the father’s descendants were destined to form a lasting unity, but this passage cannot be used at the same time by a father and his son, who must mark out his own kraal with its own entrance elsewhere. The corpse of the Accomplished, carried out by his sons and laid on the kiara, which is neither inside nor outside but between the hedges on the left, expresses the same tension between the affirmation of descent and rebirth in a circularity that denies it. In the same movement, the kraal establishes the principle of descent and delimits it in space. If filiation is therefore absorbed in the territory from the beginning, how is kinship formed?


1  Shoulder straps among the Tigania, forehead straps among the Igembe.

2  Modernization has, of course, brought certain changes to a pattern which can still, however, be observed and which the elderly still remember.

3  The rule that a cow could only be exchanged for a bull was relaxed during the colonial era; one could “hire” a cow in return for six or seven head of small ruminants, including at least one goat. The female calf is then called buli, that is to say “goat”. However, this modification in the rules of exchange was not accompanied by any fall in the cost of the transaction. Quite the contrary, in fact, because under the traditional regime a cow was hired in return for three goats, while under the modified regime it cost six or seven head of small ruminants, i.e. twice as much, since a fine sheep is worth as much as a fine goat.

4  Nowadays, this is the preferred season for cattle-rustling in trucks.

5  The loss of the herbarium collected during my surveys has made it impossible to give a botanical name for most of the species used by the Meru.

6  The ritual for a grandmother is more or less identical, but her death does not have the same consequences, because she is not the founder of the mûciî. She is laid on her left side because women are supposed to have the heart, and therefore the organ of speech, on the right. A grandmother who has had no sons can be prepared by the sons of her sisters.

7  Only the populations in the north of Tigania, turned more towards cattle keeping or perhaps influenced by Maasai sedentarized at the end of the nineteenth century, clearly express a priority in favor of the eldest son or in his absence, the youngest son.

8  The Taita, in south-eastern Kenya, identify their clans by number; the Mijikenda and the Kikuyu restrict their clan organization to a fixed number of clans, generally nine or ten.

9  The other colors are referred to by the technonym rangî... rwa mîtî, “the color... of the trees”, for example, to designate the color green.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 13 — The different elements of the family kraal
Légende 1. mwiriga entrance and exit door of the family kraal, and of the cattle enclosure2. akello hidden doors3. mairi thorny hedge4. kiara waste heap5. gaaru father’s hut6. gîkumbi spouse (s) hut (s); or nyumba, house7. lûbua girls’ hut8. mûciî jwa ngombî cattle enclosure; “bovine” enclosure9. chuku granary10. kiaanda kia ntaane novice’s shelter
Fichier image/jpeg, 25k
Titre Ill. 25a, b, c & d — Pots being molded and baked, Kunati, 1987
Crédits Photos by Anne-Marie Peatrik.
Fichier image/jpeg, 486k
Titre Fig. 14 — The mwariki - Accomplished person and the synchronization of domestic and generational cycles
Fichier image/jpeg, 21k
Légende The sub-location of Athiru Gaitî (8000 inhabitants) corresponds to the former territorial section of the same name. It is divided into three territorial subsections (in capital letters) situated around the kieni kia gaaru (kk) or public ground of the former gaaru: ntune, meaning Red, to the north is the highest part, bordering Maua; bwethaa to the east, covers the mid-slopes; antûbakirû below, spreading from west to south-east, becomes gradually more arid and less densely populated. Formerly, there was a division between the People from Above, who were Reds and Blacks, and the People from Below, who were Whites. The list of names below was collected and cross-checked with elderly with whom I was accustomed to working. It would have been far beyond the means of this study to conduct a fully verified census. The aim was to discover the principles underlying the old organization of clan and territory, and to record the toponymy and onomastics. The proper nouns contain many linguistic and historiographic clues, and it would be interesting to draw up similar lists for other areas in the Nyambene Hills. However, the gathering of information is hindered by the innumerable disputes provoked by the land reform, which has still not been completed. Obtaining the exact name of the smallest locality sometimes requires a considerable investment in time, even more so for the other types of names (this survey was conducted in early 1987).
Fichier image/jpeg, 12k

© Africae, 2020

Licence OpenEdition Books


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search